Where is the Microsoft Tablet?

It has been nearly 2 years since the release of the iPad and during that time we have seen a titanic shift in technology and the market’s expectation of what technology can provide.  It seem every week companies are coming out with a new iPad application.  If you watch local news or national programs they all seem to have a iPad application. The good news for the market is it is not just the Apple iPad.  Not far behind and rapidly growing its user base are the Google Android tablets.  The Android provides a greater range of choices while still providing access to thousands of cool and useful applications.  Soon there will be other entrants like the HP tablet based on the Palm OS.  The interesting thing is not what is coming out, but where is the 800lb gorilla?  It seems very hard to hide a beast of that size, but yet the gorilla has remained hidden.  You cannot even hear it whisper.

At the recent Consumer and Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was on stage delivering the keynote address.  What I guess was interesting about the whole presentation was not what he said but what he did not say.  At a trade show where everything was focused on tablets, Ballmer talked about everything but a tablet.  His big thing was Microsoft’s foray into engineering and developing for ARM (for you non-techies who read my blog it’s a microprocessor like Intel).  This should not be trivialized, this could have benefits.  However it is short on sex appeal.  Unlike some tech shows where new things are touted at CES, tablets were new, but there were sales to back it up.  So it was not just another gizmo.

Since CES we have seen launches of new Tablets like the Samsung Galaxy and iPad 2.  We see them developing channels for resale through the service providers.  Companies like AT&T and Verizon are eager to have these devices on their network as they can drive data plans.  Microsoft for years has been trying to build a resale channel with the Telco’s. An old boss of mine is in charge of creating the worldwide reseller channel with the telecommunications carriers.  What does he tell them when they ask, “what’s your tablet strategy?”  He also used to tell me in sales, “You are what your numbers say you are”. In its first weekend of sales the Apple iPad 2 sold over 500,000 tablets.     Now we can have positive adjectives to describe our numbers, which is fun or we can have negative adjectives to describe our numbers, which is pro fain.  Apple and Google would both have very colorful adjectives.  Microsoft, well lets just say they may need to spend time in the confessional booth .

One thing that seems to be holding Microsoft back and seems to fuel a lot of speculation and gossip is what  operating system will they use, when they do come out with a tablet (I gotta admit I am guessing on this one as I have seen nothing in the press or heard from old friends about this one)?  The debate is between Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7.  Do you mimic what Apple did with the iPhone and simply enlarge to the iPad or do you go with your bread and butter, your flagship product, Windows.  I can say from a historical point of view when push comes to shove, the big boys at Microsoft always win, with that in mind it would seem Windows 7 will come out on top.  All I know is while the debate rages on the market does not stop.

When thinking about what is going on can history really repeat itself again?  Microsoft was in the Smartphone business for quite some time before Apple joined the party with the iPhone, and before they could respond out the gates and off to the races came Google’s Android platform.  By the time Windows Phone 7 came out the market was in a mature phase, so the Windows Phone was just another player trying to be heard. The Tablet business is similar in many ways. Microsoft has been in the Tablet business even longer than the phone business, as the vision of a more interactive device had long been a pet project of Bill Gate’s.  Yet as I sit in my office it seems as if history has already repeated itself.  Apple came out withe iPad but not far behind, once again, was Google with their Android based Tablets.   To be honest this is all eerily similar to the early days of the PC industry where Apple made the expensive high-end computers and Microsoft did the cheaper low-end computers, except now we can replace Windows with Android.  One area of my theory can be brought into doubt by one single question, “Where is the Microsoft Tablet”?

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann March 24th 2011

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The death of Zune

I can say I have owned a Zune for several years and can actually say that I have loved it. I will also say I was way behind the younger generation in getting a MP3 player or iPod.  I was and still am buying my cd’s through the retail channel.  However when I finally got my Zune it was a really enjoyable experience to have my entire collection of music on a 80gb Zune.  Not to mention the process of creating a playlist was so simple, gone were the painstaking days of making a tape (I am dating myself) to impress my then girlfriend, now wife.  These were all things that the Apple crowd had been experiencing for several years with the enormous success of the iPod.  As much as I have enjoyed the Zune, it has struggled mightily in the market.  Unlike “i” everything the term “Zune” has not made it into regular occurence in the English language. Beyond Microsoft employees how many people actually own a Zune?  The answer is pretty simple..not many.  Thus the recent rumors circulating that Microsoft is killing the Zune device (not the software) is somewhere between disappointing and understandable.

If you look back in time at what Zune was competing against, it was in short, up against a product that you could argue saved Apple and shot it into the stratosphere.  The iPod was a cool little device and it was not long before you saw the white headphones nearly everywhere you went, on the bus, at school,camping, even on the Microsoft Redmond campus, never before had I seen competitive products on campus in mass.  Beyond basic technology Apple was able to market it in away that reflected people s lifestyles.  They were colorful.  Microsoft early on was pursuing the traditional MS philosophy that they provide the software and then 3rd party providers would innovate.  The problem is they were not very innovative.  I looked at these devices early on visa vi the iPod.  One spin of the wheel and the argument for the iPod was very simple

When the Zune finally did come out Microsoft’s old Achilles heel came with it, color.  The original came in Black, and Brown.  Not overly exciting.  The executives would often highlight in talks the popularity of brown.  Not to be too cynical here, but really? brown?    The people working at Zune worked hard to play catch up.  I heard through people that the Zune Program Manager’s were logging 80hrs a week for their less than five percent market share.  I admire that they were so committed and worked so hard against a seemingly invincible juggernaut.  But to what end and was that dedication well served?  It’s hard to build a great product, but even harder is to change public perception.  Especially when this category is defined by high school and college students.

There were some good innovations that the Zune should be remembered for and we should be clear the device looks set to die, but the software shall live on.  One of the services constantly highlighted is the Zune Pass.  People who have used it adore it.  It is pretty straight forward.  You pay a monthly subscription fee and then you get access to all the music you want.  The price is minimal at $14.99 per month.  You can use on your Zune, PC or Windows Phone.  You no longer need to worry about purchasing music, you just have access to it.  Despite the imminent demise of the Zune player, it sounds like the Zune Pass will live on.  Which is great as it’s a valuable service.

Moving forward what will Zune look like now that it is becoming a software service.  It raises a lot of questions.  First what will the mobile strategy be for Zune?  Will it be tied to the Microsoft OS or will it be ported to their platforms such as iOS and Android?  What about the Tablet?  Attacking the different form factors will be paramount, but even more important in my opinion will be developing a cohesive mobile strategy.   Having a stronger ad campaign would help.  I have seen colorful iPod Billboards everywhere.  I cannot remember a single Zune ad.  I know U2 supports the iPod.  So do the Beatles.  The Zune…let’s not go there.  It talks to one of the big failing not just of eth Zune, but of Microsoft, which seems to be a lack of advertising that actually connects to people.  It may be shocking to some but people like things that make them feel good.  Having a smart ad campaign can go a long way to making that connection.

The demise of the device seems logical as more and more people move to Smartphones as their all-purpose device.  However even though the growth of the iPod segment is slowing, it is not insignificant.  In the fourth quarter of 2010 19 million iPods were sold, despite a flattening of sales that is a pretty large number.  To walk away, despite Zune’s struggles, in my estimation is a bit premature.  It also seems like Microsoft is falling back to its old mode of. “we are not a hardware provider”.  As I have said before it is really about the whole experience.  Experience combines both software and hardware.  The lines are no longer so simple.

My final say on this is what is music?  Since I first got into music it was always a way of self-expression.  At first it was on a little turn table.  Then it started to be reflected in the clothes I wore.  Then there were concerts.  Friends I got together with as we found common ground in the music we listened to and shared with one another.  This exposed me to new music and new thought.  The idea of a device that would allow me to bring that experience with me and the ability to easily share with new friends is the holy grail.  Technology enables the experience, but it is not the experience.  That rests with you and I.

RIP Zune.

Good Night and Good Luck.

Hans Henrik Hoffmann March 20, 2011

Why the Cloud Matters

It’s hard to have a discussion these days with a customer or read an article in the technology space without having a discussion about “the cloud”.  It has even hit the television, all be it in rather confusing terms.  I imagine for most people the question would be is “what is it” and “why do I care”?  In many instances most people are already using a cloud based offering, they just don’t know it, because what they are using has not been referred to as a cloud application before.  A couple of classic examples would be Microsoft Hotmail or Google gMail.  The simple reason these are cloud applications is nothing is needed bot a browser to sign up and use the applications.  All your data resides somewhere on the internet.  Where?  Who cares.  But i guess to further the discussion we need to break our cloud up into scenarios.  Probably the easiest way to do this is to look at business and then consumers.

When I started in the industry back into 1991, businesses in America were aggressively looking to the PC and the PC based network as a way of differentiating themselves from their competition.  This led to new concepts (or rehashed concepts as nothing is ever truly new in technology).  Along came networking, email, client-server, large databases, customer relationship management(CRM), it’s really an extensive list bit this led to a new organization in business: IT.  Granted the PC era did not create it but it certainly grew it to the point that most large enterprises have IT departments with a billion budgets.  These were necessary departments but the bottom line is the are expensive to maintain.  If you start to think what it takes to create and support these systems there is a lot to it.   You need hardware (desktop and server hardware), network equipment such as routers and load balancers, administrators for nearly everything, whether it is managing your messaging systems of a database.  There is the physical space to actually manage all these systems, this is where the big term we hear so often today comes into play: data centers.   in addition these data centers with all those machines get hot so the need cooling systems.  When everything is in place you still need something to manage the fact that you could have a fire or earthquake.  Therefore you need backup for all this stuff at remote locations.  So everything I mentioned which is a subset of reality can be multiplied by two.  In short as systems grow and technologies improve or newer better stuff becomes available one thing is consistent, your costs continue to increase.

The cloud provides the promise to reduce some of the complexity and costs in the CIO’s budget.  The term CIO stands for Chief Information Office or Career is Over.  The former is a business title the latter is true.  The cloud promises to take some of the complexity away from IT organizations today.  A great example is CRM and what SalesForce.Com is doing.  AT my current place of work we use the too to manage our sales forecasts, contacts, product pipeline etc..the great thing is we simply pay for  the service we do not have to set up new hardware in a data center and pay for power and cooling of the system.  It allows our company to focus our operations on our core business serving customers rather than having to have internal discussions about developing new features and functionality into an application that may or may not work depending on what is delivered.  We can extend beyond CRM into a whole set of new services that will be offered.  I believe in time email will be a cloud based service and will not require as much on primes equipment.

One of the most annoying commercials on television is Microsoft’s MSN, Live Messenger ad that ends with some goofy looking people saying, “to the Cloud”.  With that quick slam of Microsoft I should point out there is some truth to the ad. Cloud based services will play an ever-increasing role in how consumers interact with technology.  As I pointed out in the beginning people already are with cloud based email services like Hotmail and gMail. With the explosion of digital photography into everyday life it is becoming increasingly important to have some type of cloud based storage.  Why risk family memories to a house fire or theft?  When you post pictures to Facebook aren’t you essentially making a back up copy of photo’s?

The promise of the cloud for the consumer is the same as the enterprise, taking some of the complexity out of how we manage our personal lives online.  We can take a simple example of a Word document.  Today you create a word doc and save it to your local hard drive.  Whether you know it or not that file has a path it is located on such as C:\\jill\mydocuments – now that file is at risk. Your computer could have a hard drive crash.  A virus.  You spill a coke on the computer.  There are a number of things that could happen.  I am sure many of you our there have had them happen. With the cloud you can make this a seem less experience where you store all your files in the cloud – you can just change the file path to G:\\ or H:\\ with the corresponding path being on the internet.  There are services out there today that do online back up with services such as Dropbox or Windows Live Skydrive, which offers 25 GB for free. These are simple examples.  But with applications like Google Docs the world of apps will also live in the cloud.  Your documents and spreadsheets will run in the browser and all files you create will live in the cloud.  Te benefit of all this is when you do spill Coke on your Netbook, you may destroy it but your valuable files, like photo’s, music, tax documents, financial statements will be somewhere else.  You will not need to reload Microsoft Office (what did I do with the CD?)  This will be taking a level of complexity that has been growing over years out of our day-to-day lives

In the end the Cloud will fundamentally alter our lives and alter how business is done today.  In the tech industry it has always been the goal to make all great innovations accessible to the general public.  Though the PC took us much closer to making that vision reality, it also introduced a lot of complexity, unknowingly into people and enterprises lives.  The cloud is the next step in simplifying technology.  Let the “whiz kids” do all the heavy lifting in the background and let people get on with their lives and get on with their jobs.  Let’s reap the benefits and not the pain.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann March 15th, 2011

A Robotic Future

Sounds a bit scary at first, but sometimes you wake up in the morning and the future seems as clear as a bright blue sky. As technology progresses at break neck speed we are starting to see things that were once part of fantasy start to become reality.  Growing up the idea of robots was confined to science fiction films.  As technology has progressed the visions of what was fantasy and what was reality seemed to bleed into one another.    Today we are now starting to see robotics both in military defense and consumer home products. We have unmanned air vehicles patrolling the skies of Afghanistan and the Rumba vacuuming our homes.  Companies, like iRobot, are at the cutting edge of these advancements and creating a new economy in the process for us all to benefit from.

There was a time these ideas were confined to classic literature.  Anyone who has read Jules Verne’s classic “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”, knows what this is about.  When the book was written it seemed a bit far-fetched.  The idea being that a boat would travel under water, only coming up for air occasionally was crazy.  On top of that the boat was made of metal – I mean really how would it stay afloat?  But over time this ridiculous idea would become reality.  It would begin in World War I to today where it is just part of our military practice.  It will not be long before tourist liners patrol the sea floor.

In what I view as a significant small bit if writing, Bill Gates wrote about the dawn of this new robotics era in an article published in Scientific America in 2006.  He compared the robotics  industry as being similar to what the PC industry was like in the mid seventies.  The big comparison being there is no de-facto method of writing robotics applications, similar to the PC world before the advent of Windows.  I will say the challenges of robotics is far greater than a PC.  A PC is very linear in what it does and is controlled by human input.  A robot is being asked to think, like a human, and we are not predictable. The promise of robotics will be taking care of those mundane tasks like folding laundry.  I will take this a step further if it could match all my socks, that would be huge!

Unfortunately these type of big advancements often do not start as part of your children;s play things, a great place to see where much of the advancement begins is the US Department of Defense.  It is not new news that today that pilots operating in war zones are not even remotely in the vicinity, meaning the plane is there but the pilot is sitting comfortably somewhere in Nevada.  The only danger to the United States Military is financial should an unmanned air vehicle be shot down by enemy combatants.  Moving forward you can see the advancements in the skies will move back to the ground.  You see some of that today even in our local police forces, when they have to inspect a potential bomb or detonate a bomb.  But I believe it will go much farther than that to starting to replace some of the tasks of the combat soldier.

If you see some of the robots coming out of Japan you will see some really great and scary work.  Here is one example of how far we have come.  Kokoro has an android prototype that has facial expressions.  If you look at the robot it has a lot of visual flaws however it does attempt to replicate the human form in look and feel.  It is rather scary to see how far they have come.  Another effort under way at MIT is to build a robot that can run as fast as Olympic champion Usain Bolt.  They have not finished but I find the mere fact that they are attempting to be truly amazing and it shows how far we have come.  The dreams are becoming larger in scope and reality is coming into focus.

All this being said there are still major challenges.  If you think of the Usain Bolt example, MIT is developing a robot to run a straight line over 100 meters.  There are no obstacles in the way.  But as we tell all our children (or at least I hope we do), life is full of obstacles.  In particular the physical elements of life.  How does a robot understand obstacle that are not expected or maybe even hurled in front of them, what it supposed to do in those unplanned events?  It will take some clever software engineers to figure out how to write those challenges and solutions into a program.  But I feel confident over time these challenges will be overcome.

Another challenge will be if these new devices reach mass adoption, how will we power this new economy?  We are already facing an energy crunch with emerging economies thirsting for more energy, an explosion of devices from mobile phones, to tablets to Rumbas.  All this causing oil prices to climb, new coal-fired plants being built around the globe around the clock.  Any questions about coal go to Wyoming and see the constant flow of 100 train cars filled to capacity with going in very direction across the Unites States.  Robots will promise to be larger thus demanding more energy resources.

I can’t tell you when all this will happen, but it’s apparent that the days of you doing your own vacuum cleaning are coming to an end. Long live the Hoover!  Not far behind you will no longer need to mob your own floors.  Based on what is available today the bar-tending profession could undergo a change.  It may be a novelty at first but as it progresses one has to ask, “How many bartenders are on the planet and what will they do if they cannot tend bar?”  There will be a social fallout as we move froward. We will see a level of animosity toward a new and emerging workforce, a workforce without a conscience.  But in some ways that mimics the world we live in.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann March 5, 2011